Intelligent, philosophical, and complex, yet still hard-rocking enough to keep a stadium thrumming. That’s the legacy of the Canadian band Rush. They read science fiction, took a side road through prog rock and synths, and still came out the other end as a guitar—and drums—driven band.
In 1968 Alex Lifeson started the band with a couple of neighborhood friends in Toronto. They quickly replaced the lead singer with Geddy Lee, who also played bass and keyboards. By 1974, drummer Neil Peart had joined. The Lee/Lifeson/Peart trio would be Rush for almost fifty years.
However, it was John Rutsey on drums for the first album, Rush (1974). Rush was released in Canada by the band’s own label, Moon. Mercury picked it up for U.S. distribution. “Working Man” got a bit of traction as a single, but otherwise the album did not have beginner’s luck.
It’s interesting to hear examples from these early days, before there was even a wisp of prog-rock and only straightforward instrumentation. The first track is called “Finding My Way.” Lifeson’s long opening guitar riff and Lee’s scream entrance isn’t too far stylistically from contemporaneous cuts by Queen.
With drummer Rutsey stepping down for health reasons, Peart took his place for the second album, Fly by Night. This is one of two releases from 1975, the other being Caress of Steel. On Fly by Night, there’s an unmistakable motion toward the budding sub-genre of progressive rock. These brainy fellows were perfect for it, naming songs after Ayn Rand novels (“Anthem”) and an Elven village in The Lord of the Rings (“Rivendell”).
Musically speaking, “By-Tor and the Snow Dog” most obviously shows their prog progress. It’s over eight minutes long and divided into four chapters, the third of which, called “Of the Battle,” has its own four subsections. Defining Rush characteristics emerge, like Lee’s constant vocal intensity and Lifeson’s guitar chords in the same rhythm as the vocal melody. The lyrics come at you thick and merciless: This was music for people willing to listen intently.
After 1976’s album 2112 (their first to break the U.S. top 100), Rush released A Farewell to Kings the following year. There are only six songs on this record, with “Xanadu” taking up most of Side 1. The science fiction-inspired “Cygnus X-1 Book I: The Voyage” is the last 10-plus minutes of Side 2. At this point, Lee has started playing Minimoog, and he and Lifeson take turns on bass pedal synthesizers. Meanwhile, Peart has expanded the percussion sounds to include wind chimes, vibraslap, and a host of other instruments.
The shortest song on the album, “Madrigal” is synthesized from head to toe. But it’s a delicate arrangement, almost hesitant, as if the band isn’t confident yet with these artificial sounds, which coexist with more traditional rock timbres. And if there’s any doubt this is Rush, just listen for the mention of dragons in the first line.
Leaving out an example from Rush’s science fiction work would be a serious omission. It’s remarkable enough that Peart (the band’s lyricist) attempted to tell the story of a spaceship going into a black hole with the “Cygus X-1” track. Even more impressive is that he continued the story on the following album, Hemispheres (1978). So grab a snack and settle in for the 18-plus minutes of “Cygnus X-1 Book 2: Hemispheres,” which explores how the gods Apollo and Dionysus represent warring aspects of man’s nature.
Releasing albums every year or two, Rush was on the ascendant. Their biggest selling album turned out to be Moving Pictures (1981), which included the singles “Vital Signs” and “Tom Sawyer.” Next up was Signals (1982). In the song “Subdivisions,” Peart’s lyrics are matched with Lifeson and Lee’s music, featuring interesting syncopation and occasional bars of seven beats. By this point, the synths have become a wall of sound, a foil-between-your-teeth backdrop that strikes the 21st-century ear as unquestionably tied to the ʼ80s.
With Presto (1989), the band signed with Atlantic Records, after a long association with Mercury. This album also marked a change in instrumentation. After several albums that might be labeled “thinking man’s synthpop,” now Rush began to lean more on the sound of guitar. As Lee said in an interview at the time, it’s a “singer’s album” in which the “arrangements support the vocal.” This is not to say they walked away from synthesized sound on this album. Far from it. But that wall of synth has been dissolved, and it’s possible to hear other instruments and textures.
The band had long ago given up the 10-minute prog songs of the ʼ70s. Now they were more interested in standard-length tracks with specific messages rather than stories. Some songs also served as sonic experiments. “Scars” is a good example. With lyrics about the emotional pain we carry with us all our lives, Peart uses the song to showcase some rhythms he had picked up on a recent trip to Africa.
Throughout the ʼ90s, Rush released an album every two or three years. Then Peart was hit by a dreadful double tragedy: the death of his daughter in 1997 and the death of his wife in 1998. He asked for a break from the band to rebuild his life. By 2001 he was ready to get back in the studio. The result was Vapor Trails (2002).
For the first time since 1975, Rush recorded without any keyboard instruments. They’d come full circle, returning to their roots. “Peaceable Kingdom,” titled in reference to the Henri Rousseau painting of calm within a wild jungle, acknowledges the division of opinions in our modern world and our unwillingness to listen to each other. The hard-driving rock sound in a minor key could be Nine Inch Nails, showing a whole different, metal side of Rush, yet still featuring their complex, philosophical lyrics.
The last studio album, their 19th, is Clockwork Angels (2012). That album’s final track is “The Garden.” Admittedly, in this era of downloading individual songs, the term “final track” might not be as meaningful as it once was. But Rush was always an album band, so the last track on their last record is a fitting way to say farewell. The spooky violin tremolo (strings arranged and conducted by David Campbell) and the old-school use of strummed acoustic guitar give this song a kind of melancholy that really does sound like goodbye.
In 2018, half a century after forming, Rush officially called it quits. An amazing feat of endurance in spite of their band name.